John Halifax, Gentleman, by Dinah Craik

Chapter 7

It was the year 1800, long known in English households as “the dear year.” The present generation can have no conception of what a terrible time that was — War, Famine, and Tumult stalking hand-inhand, and no one to stay them. For between the upper and lower classes there was a great gulf fixed; the rich ground the faces of the poor, the poor hated, yet meanly succumbed to, the rich. Neither had Christianity enough boldly to cross the line of demarcation, and prove, the humbler, that they were men — the higher and wiser, that they were gentlemen.

These troubles, which were everywhere abroad, reached us even in our quiet town of Norton Bury. For myself, personally, they touched me not, or, at least, only kept fluttering like evil birds outside the dear home-tabernacle, where I and Patience sat, keeping our solemn counsel together — for these two years had with me been very hard.

Though I had to bear so much bodily suffering that I was seldom told of any worldly cares, still I often fancied things were going ill both within and without our doors. Jael complained in an under-key of stinted housekeeping, or boasted aloud of her own ingenuity in making ends meet: and my father’s brow grew continually heavier, graver, sterner; sometimes so stern that I dared not wage, what was, openly or secretly, the quiet but incessant crusade of my existence — the bringing back of John Halifax.

He still remained my father’s clerk — nay, I sometimes thought he was even advancing in duties and trusts, for I heard of his being sent long journeys up and down England to buy grain — Abel Fletcher having added to his tanning business the flour-mill hard by, whose lazy whirr was so familiar to John and me in our boyhood. But of these journeys my father never spoke; indeed, he rarely mentioned John at all. However he might employ and even trust him in business relations, I knew that in every other way he was inexorable.

And John Halifax was as inexorable as he. No under-hand or clandestine friendship would he admit — no, not even for my sake. I knew quite well, that until he could walk in openly, honourably, proudly, he never would reenter my father’s doors. Twice only he had written to me — on my two birthdays — my father himself giving me in silence the unsealed letters. They told me what I already was sure of — that I held, and always should hold, my steadfast place in his friendship. Nothing more.

One other fact I noticed: that a little lad, afterward discovered to be Jem Watkins, to whom had fallen the hard-working lot of the lost Bill, had somehow crept into our household as errand-boy, or gardener’s boy; and being “cute,” and a “scholard,” was greatly patronized by Jael. I noticed, too, that the said Jem, whenever he came in my way, in house or garden, was the most capital “little foot-page” that ever invalid had; knowing intuitively all my needs, and serving me with an unfailing devotion, which quite surprised and puzzled me at the time. It did not afterwards.

Summer was passing. People began to watch with anxious looks the thin harvest-fields — as Jael often told me, when she came home from her afternoon walks. “It was piteous to see them,” she said; “only July, and the quartern loaf nearly three shillings, and meal four shillings a peck.”

And then she would glance at our flour-mill, where for several days a week the water-wheel was as quiet as on Sundays; for my father kept his grain locked up, waiting for what, he wisely judged, might be a worse harvest than the last. But Jael, though she said nothing, often looked at the flour-mill and shook her head. And after one market-day — when she came in rather “flustered,” saying there had been a mob outside the mill, until “that young man Halifax” had gone out and spoken to them — she never once allowed me to take my rare walk under the trees in the Abbey-yard; nor, if she could help it, would she even let me sit watching the lazy Avon from the garden-wall.

One Sunday — it was the 1st of August, for my father had just come back from meeting, very much later than usual, and Jael said he had gone, as was his annual custom on that his wedding-day, to the Friends’ burial ground in St. Mary’s Lane, where, far away from her own kindred and people, my poor young mother had been laid — on this one Sunday I began to see that things were going wrong. Abel Fletcher sat at dinner wearing the heavy, hard look which had grown upon his face not unmingled with the wrinkles planted by physical pain. For, with all his temperance, he could not quite keep down his hereditary enemy, gout; and this week it had clutched him pretty hard.

Dr. Jessop came in, and I stole away gladly enough, and sat for an hour in my old place in the garden, idly watching the stretch of meadow, pasture, and harvest land. Noticing, too, more as a pretty bit in the landscape than as a fact of vital importance, in how many places the half-ripe corn was already cut, and piled in thinly-scattered sheaves over the fields.

After the doctor left, my father sent for me and all his household: in the which, creeping humbly after the woman-kind, was now numbered the lad Jem. That Abel Fletcher was not quite himself was proved by the fact that his unlighted pipe lay on the table, and his afternoon tankard of ale sank from foam to flatness untouched.

He first addressed Jael. “Woman, was it thee who cooked the dinner today?”

She gave a dignified affirmative.

“Thee must give us no more such dinners. No cakes, no pastry kickshaws, and only wheaten bread enough for absolute necessity. Our neighbours shall not say that Abel Fletcher has flour in his mill, and plenty in his house, while there is famine abroad in the land. So take heed.”

“I do take heed,” answered Jael, staunchly. “Thee canst not say I waste a penny of thine. And for myself, do I not pity the poor? On First-day a woman cried after me about wasting good flour in starch — today, behold.”

And with a spasmodic bridling-up, she pointed to the bouffante which used to stand up stiffly round her withered old throat, and stick out in front like a pouter pigeon. Alas! its glory and starch were alike departed; it now appeared nothing but a heap of crumpled and yellowish muslin. Poor Jael! I knew this was the most heroic personal sacrifice she could have made, yet I could not help smiling; even my father did the same.

“Dost thee mock me, Abel Fletcher?” cried she angrily. “Preach not to others while the sin lies on thy own head.”

And I am sure poor Jael was innocent of any jocular intention, as advancing sternly she pointed to her master’s pate, where his long-worn powder was scarcely distinguishable from the snows of age. He bore the assault gravely and unshrinkingly, merely saying, “Woman, peace!”

“Nor while”— pursued Jael, driven apparently to the last and most poisoned arrow in her quiver of wrath —“while the poor folk be starving in scores about Norton Bury, and the rich folk there will not sell their wheat under famine price. Take heed to thyself, Abel Fletcher.”

My father winced, either from a twinge of gout or conscience; and then Jael suddenly ceased the attack, sent the other servants out of the room, and tended her master as carefully as if she had not insulted him. In his fits of gout my father, unlike most men, became the quieter and easier to manage the more he suffered. He had a long fit of pain which left him considerably exhausted. When, being at last relieved, he and I were sitting in the room alone, he said to me —

“Phineas, the tan-yard has thriven ill of late, and I thought the mill would make up for it. But if it will not it will not. Wouldst thee mind, my son, being left a little poor when I am gone?”

“Father!”

“Well, then, in a few days I will begin selling my wheat, as that lad has advised and begged me to do these weeks past. He is a sharp lad, and I am getting old. Perhaps he is right.”

“Who, father?” I asked, rather hypocritically.

“Thee knowest well enough — John Halifax.”

I thought it best to say no more; but I never let go one thread of hope which could draw me nearer to my heart’s desire.

On the Monday morning my father went to the tan-yard as usual. I spent the day in my bed-room, which looked over the garden, where I saw nothing but the waving of the trees and the birds hopping over the smooth grass; heard nothing but the soft chime, hour after hour, of the Abbey bells. What was passing in the world, in the town, or even in the next street, was to me faint as dreams.

At dinner-time I rose, went down-stairs, and waited for my father; waited one, two, three hours. It was very strange. He never by any chance overstayed his time, without sending a message home. So after some consideration as to whether I dared encroach upon his formal habits so much, and after much advice from Jael, who betrayed more anxiety than was at all warranted by the cause she assigned, viz. the spoiled dinner, I despatched Jem Watkins to the tan-yard to see after his master.

He came back with ill news. The lane leading to the tan-yard was blocked up with a wild mob. Even the stolid, starved patience of our Norton Bury poor had come to an end at last — they had followed the example of many others. There was a bread-riot in the town.

God only knows how terrible those “riots” were; when the people rose in desperation, not from some delusion of crazy, blood-thirsty “patriotism,” but to get food for themselves, their wives, and children. God only knows what madness was in each individual heart of that concourse of poor wretches, styled “the mob,” when every man took up arms, certain that there were before him but two alternatives, starving or — hanging.

The riot here was scarcely universal. Norton Bury was not a large place, and had always abundance of small-pox and fevers to keep the poor down numerically. Jem said it was chiefly about our mill and our tan-yard that the disturbance lay.

“And where is my father?”

Jem “didn’t know,” and looked very much as if he didn’t care.

“Jael, somebody must go at once, and find my father.”

“I am going,” said Jael, who had already put on her cloak and hood. Of course, despite all her opposition, I went too.

The tan-yard was deserted; the mob had divided, and gone, one half to our mill, the rest to another that was lower down the river. I asked of a poor frightened bark-cutter if she knew where my father was? She thought he was gone for the “millingtary;” but Mr. Halifax was at the mill now — she hoped no harm would come to Mr. Halifax.

Even in that moment of alarm I felt a sense of pleasure. I had not been in the tan-yard for nearly three years. I did not know John had come already to be called “Mr. Halifax.”

There was nothing for me but to wait here till my father returned. He could not surely be so insane as to go to the mill — and John was there. Terribly was my heart divided, but my duty lay with my father.

Jael sat down in the shed, or marched restlessly between the tan-pits. I went to the end of the yard, and looked down towards the mill. What a half-hour it was!

At last, exhausted, I sat down on the bark heap where John and I had once sat as lads. He must now be more than twenty; I wondered if he were altered.

“Oh, David! David!” I thought, as I listened eagerly for any sounds abroad in the town; “what should I do if any harm came to thee?”

This minute I heard a footstep crossing the yard. No, it was not my father’s — it was firmer, quicker, younger. I sprang from the barkheap.

“Phineas!”

“John!”

What a grasp that was — both hands! and how fondly and proudly I looked up in his face — the still boyish face. But the figure was quite that of a man now.

For a minute we forgot ourselves in our joy, and then he let go my hands, saying hurriedly —

“Where is your father?”

“I wish I knew! — Gone for the soldiers, they say.”

“No, not that — he would never do that. I must go and look for him. Good-bye.”

“Nay, dear John!”

“Can’t — can’t,” said he, firmly, “not while your father forbids. I must go.” And he was gone.

Though my heart rebelled, my conscience defended him; marvelling how it was that he who had never known his father should uphold so sternly the duty of filial obedience. I think it ought to act as a solemn warning to those who exact so much from the mere fact and name of parenthood, without having in any way fulfilled its duties, that orphans from birth often revere the ideal of that bond far more than those who have known it in reality. Always excepting those children to whose blessed lot it has fallen to have the ideal realized.

In a few minutes I saw him and my father enter the tan-yard together. He was talking earnestly, and my father was listening — ay, listening — and to John Halifax! But whatever the argument was, it failed to move him. Greatly troubled, but staunch as a rock, my old father stood, resting his lame foot on a heap of hides. I went to meet him.

“Phineas,” said John, anxiously, “come and help me. No, Abel Fletcher,” he added, rather proudly, in reply to a sharp, suspicious glance at us both; “your son and I only met ten minutes ago, and have scarcely exchanged a word. But we cannot waste time over that matter now. Phineas, help me to persuade your father to save his property. He will not call for the aid of the law, because he is a Friend. Besides, for the same reason, it might be useless asking.”

“Verily!” said my father, with a bitter and meaning smile.

“But he might get his own men to defend his property, and need not do what he is bent on doing — go to the mill himself.”

“Surely,” was all Abel Fletcher said, planting his oaken stick firmly, as firmly as his will, and taking his way to the river-side, in the direction of the mill.

I caught his arm —“Father, don’t go.”

“My son,” said he, turning on me one of his “iron looks,” as I used to call them — tokens of a nature that might have ran molten once, and had settled into a hard, moulded mass, of which nothing could afterwards alter one form, or erase one line —“My son, no opposition. Any who try that with me fail. If those fellows had waited two days more I would have sold all my wheat at a hundred shillings the quarter; now they shall have nothing. It will teach them wisdom another time. Get thee safe home, Phineas, my son; Jael, go thou likewise.”

But neither went. John held me back as I was following my father.

“He will do it, Phineas, and I suppose he must. Please God, I’ll take care no harm touches him — but you go home.”

That was not to be thought of. Fortunately, the time was too brief for argument, so the discussion soon ended. He followed my father and I followed him. For Jael, she disappeared.

There was a private path from the tan-yard to the mill, along the river-side; by this we went, in silence. When we reached the spot it was deserted; but further down the river we heard a scuffling, and saw a number of men breaking down our garden wall.

“They think he is gone home,” whispered John; “we’ll get in here the safer. Quick, Phineas.”

We crossed the little bridge; John took a key out of his pocket, and let us into the mill by a small door — the only entrance, and that was barred and trebly barred within. It had good need to be in such times.

The mill was a queer, musty, silent place, especially the machinery room, the sole flooring of which was the dark, dangerous stream. We stood there a good while — it was the safest place, having no windows. Then we followed my father to the top story, where he kept his bags of grain. There were very many; enough, in these times, to make a large fortune by — a cursed fortune wrung out of human lives.

“Oh! how could my father —”

“Hush!” whispered John, “it was for his son’s sake, you know.”

But while we stood, and with a meaning but rather grim smile Abel Fletcher counted his bags, worth almost as much as bags of gold — we heard a hammering at the door below. The rioters were come.

Miserable “rioters!”— A handful of weak, starved men — pelting us with stones and words. One pistol-shot might have routed them all — but my father’s doctrine of non-resistance forbade. Small as their force seemed, there was something at once formidable and pitiful in the low howl that reached us at times.

“Bring out the bags! — Us mun have bread!”

“Throw down thy corn, Abel Fletcher!”

“Abel Fletcher WILL throw it down to ye, ye knaves,” said my father, leaning out of the upper window; while a sound, half curses, half cheers of triumph, answered him from below.

“That is well,” exclaimed John, eagerly. “Thank you — thank you, Mr. Fletcher — I knew you would yield at last.”

“Didst thee, lad?” said my father, stopping short.

“Not because they forced you — not to save your life — but because it was right.”

“Help me with this bag,” was all the reply.

It was a great weight, but not too great for John’s young arm, nervous and strong. He hauled it up.

“Now, open the window — dash the panes through — it matters not. On to the window, I tell thee.”

“But if I do, the bag will fall into the river. You cannot — oh, no! — you cannot mean that!”

“Haul it up to the window, John Halifax.”

But John remained immovable.

“I must do it myself, then;” and, in the desperate effort he made, somehow the bag of grain fell, and fell on his lame foot. Tortured into frenzy with the pain — or else, I will still believe, my old father would not have done such a deed — his failing strength seemed doubled and trebled. In an instant more he had got the bag half through the window, and the next sound we heard was its heavy splash in the river below.

Flung into the river, the precious wheat, and in the very sight of the famished rioters! A howl of fury and despair arose. Some plunged into the water, ere the eddies left by the falling mass had ceased — but it was too late. A sharp substance in the river’s bed had cut the bag, and we saw thrown up to the surface, and whirled down the Avon, thousands of dancing grains. A few of the men swam, or waded after them, clutching a handful here or there — but by the mill-pool the river ran swift, and the wheat had all soon disappeared, except what remained in the bag when it was drawn on shore. Over even that they fought like demons.

We could not look at them — John and I. He put his hand over his eyes, muttering the Name that, young man as he was, I had never yet heard irreverently and thoughtlessly on his lips. It was a sight that would move any one to cry for pity unto the Great Father of the human family.

Abel Fletcher sat on his remaining bags, in an exhaustion that I think was not all physical pain. The paroxysm of anger past, he, ever a just man, could not fail to be struck with what he had done. He seemed subdued, even to something like remorse.

John looked at him, and looked away. For a minute he listened in silence to the shouting outside, and then turned to my father.

“Sir, you must come now. Not a second to lose — they will fire the mill next.”

“Let them.”

“Let them? — and Phineas is here!”

My poor father! He rose at once.

We got him down-stairs — he was very lame — his ruddy face all drawn and white with pain; but he did not speak one word of opposition, or utter a groan of complaint.

The flour-mill was built on piles, in the centre of the narrow river. It was only a few steps of bridge-work to either bank. The little door was on the Norton Bury side, and was hid from the opposite shore, where the rioters had now collected. In a minute we had crept forth, and dashed out of sight, in the narrow path which had been made from the mill to the tan-yard.

“Will you take my arm? we must get on fast.”

“Home?” said my father, as John led him passively along.

“No, sir, not home: they are there before you. Your life’s not safe an hour — unless, indeed, you get soldiers to guard it.”

Abel Fletcher gave a decided negative. The stern old Quaker held to his principles still.

“Then you must hide for a time — both of you. Come to my room. You will be secure there. Urge him, Phineas — for your sake and his own.”

But my poor broken-down father needed no urging. Grasping more tightly both John’s arm and mine, which, for the first time in his life, he leaned upon, he submitted to be led whither we chose. So, after this long interval of time, I once more stood in Sally Watkins’ small attic; where, ever since I first brought him there, John Halifax had lived.

Sally knew not of our entrance; she was out, watching the rioters. No one saw us but Jem, and Jem’s honour was safe as a rock. I knew that in the smile with which he pulled off his cap to “Mr. Halifax.”

“Now,” said John, hastily smoothing his bed, so that my father might lie down, and wrapping his cloak round me —“you must both be very still. You will likely have to spend the night here. Jem shall bring you a light and supper. You will make yourself easy, Abel Fletcher?”

“Ay.” It was strange to see how decidedly, yet respectfully, John spoke, and how quietly my father answered.

“And, Phineas”— he put his arm round my shoulder in his old way —“you will take care of yourself. Are you any stronger than you used to be?”

I clasped his hand without reply. My heart melted to hear that tender accent, so familiar once. All was happening for the best, if it only gave me back David.

“Now good-bye — I must be off.”

“Whither?” said my father, rousing himself.

“To try and save the house and the tan-yard — I fear we must give up the mill. No, don’t hold me, Phineas. I run no risk: everybody knows me. Besides, I am young. There! see after your father. I shall come back in good time.”

He grasped my hands warmly — then unloosed them; and I heard his step descending the staircase. The room seemed to darken when he went away.

The evening passed very slowly. My father, exhausted with pain, lay on the bed and dozed. I sat watching the sky over the housetops, which met in the old angles, with the same blue peeps between. I half forgot all the day’s events — it seemed but two weeks, instead of two years ago, that John and I had sat in this attic-window, conning our Shakspeare for the first time.

Ere twilight I examined John’s room. It was a good deal changed; the furniture was improved; a score of ingenious little contrivances made the tiny attic into a cosy bed-chamber. One corner was full of shelves, laden with books, chiefly of a scientific and practical nature. John’s taste did not lead him into the current literature of the day: Cowper, Akenside, and Peter Pindar were alike indifferent to him. I found among his books no poet but Shakspeare.

He evidently still practised his old mechanical arts. There was lying in the window a telescope — the cylinder made of pasteboard — into which the lenses were ingeniously fitted. A rough telescope-stand, of common deal, stood on the ledge of the roof, from which the field of view must have been satisfactory enough to the young astronomer. Other fragments of skilful handiwork, chiefly meant for machinery on a Lilliputian scale, were strewn about the floor; and on a chair, just as he had left it that morning, stood a loom, very small in size, but perfect in its neat workmanship, with a few threads already woven, making some fabric not so very unlike cloth.

I had gone over all these things without noticing that my father was awake, and that his sharp eye had observed them likewise.

“The lad works hard,” said he, half to himself. “He has useful hands and a clear head.” I smiled, but took no notice whatever.

Evening began to close in-less peacefully than usual — over Norton Bury; for, whenever I ventured to open the window, we heard unusual and ominous sounds abroad in the town. I trembled inwardly. But John was prudent, as well as brave: besides, “everybody knew him.” Surely he was safe.

Faithfully, at supper-time, Jem entered. But he could tell us no news; he had kept watch all the time on the staircase by desire of “Mr. Halifax”— so he informed me. My father asked no questions — not even about his mill. From his look, sometimes, I fancied he yet beheld in fancy these starving men fighting over the precious food, destroyed so wilfully — nay, wickedly. Heaven forgive me, his son, if I too harshly use the word; for I think, till the day of his death, that cruel sight never wholly vanished from the eyes of my poor father.

Jem seemed talkatively inclined. He observed that “master was looking sprack agin; and warn’t this a tidy room, like?”

I praised it; and supposed his mother was better off now?

“Ay, she be. Mr. Halifax pays her a good rent; and she sees ’un made comfortable. Not that he wants much, being out pretty much all day.”

“What is he busy about of nights?”

“Larning,” said Jem, with an awed look. “He’s terrible wise. But for all that, sometimes he’ll teach Charley and me a bit o’ the Readamadeasy.” (Reading-made-easy, I suppose, John’s hopeful pupil meant.) “He’s very kind to we, and to mother too. Her says, that her do, Mr. Halifax —”

“Send the fellow away, Phineas,” muttered my father, turning his face to the wall.

I obeyed. But first I asked, in a whisper, if Jem had any idea when “Mr. Halifax” would be back?

“He said, maybe not till morning. Them’s bad folk about. He was going to stop all night, either at your house or at the tan-yard, for fear of a BLAZE.”

The word made my father start; for in these times well we knew what poor folk meant by “a blaze.”

“My house — my tan-yard — I must get up this instant — help me. He ought to come back — that lad Halifax. There’s a score of my men at hand — Wilkes, and Johnson, and Jacob Baines — I say, Phineas — but thee know’st nothing.”

He tried to dress, and to drag on his heavy shoes; but fell back, sick with exhaustion and pain. I made him lie down again on the bed.

“Phineas, lad,” said he, brokenly, “thy old father is getting as helpless as thee.”

So we kept watch together, all the night through; sometimes dozing, sometimes waking up at some slight noise below, or at the flicker of the long-wicked candle, which fear converted into the glare of some incendiary fire — doubtless our own home. Now and then I heard my father mutter something about “the lad being safe.” I said nothing. I only prayed.

Thus the night wore away.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 13:06